We should be the focal point of change and empower others!

Dr. Nihit Pokhrel, a solutions architect at Amazon Web Services (AWS), is a person who loves to challenge stereotypes regarding gender equality and is an advocate for the values of self-belief, persistence, and networking. Her passion lies not only in using cutting edge computational technology to advance the field of natural science while working with AWS but also in introducing such STEM opportunities to under-represented younger students as part of her work with organizations like Pacific Science Center and American Red Cross Society.

As a person who loves to challenge the norms, Nihit started vouching for equality from a young age, arguing with her dad against the tradition of only the mother doing the chores of washing and cleaning even though both her parents had day jobs. Her argument and attitude of non-conformity to the norm resulted in a schedule to divide chores among both the parents. She believes the gap starts right from childhood.

“Every little thing counts. If the task requires heavy physical work, mental work, or analysis, and logic, girls are somehow conditioned that it’s boys’ work, and these accumulations have translated into our timidness, quietness, and doing things feels complicated and intimidating.”

Nihit completed her A-Levels in Malpi School, Nepal, after which she moved to the US to pursue her undergraduate degree in Chemistry and Maths from Wesleyan College, Georgia. She shared her experience after moving to the US and learning to do everything on her own.“It is just that we are not taught to do things hands-on. But every human being is capable.” After completing her undergrad, Nihit enrolled in grad school. She got her Ph.D. in Computational Chemistry from the University of Washington, where she investigated the dynamic properties of cell membranes by the methods of molecular simulation. Nihit shares her story of being in grad school, where she initially felt like giving up. Being one of just three female students in a group of 24 students, Nihit talks about being intimidated by the seemingly confident, loud guys who indirectly forced her to incorporate the idea of not being capable enough to make it. She highlights the importance of communicating our fears in such situations. She did the same, reaching out to her female professors, who encouraged her to have faith, work hard, and keep going, which ultimately freed her of her fears.

The story of how Nihit got into AWS being a Ph.D. in Chemistry is fascinating. When you think of a Chemistry scholar, you imagine a person in a white coat mixing chemicals in a lab. But this was not the case with Nihit. She became a chemist who, instead of spending the majority of her research time mixing chemicals in a laboratory, spent her time analyzing data using computers and thinking of ways to make her research efficient through better use of computing tools. She repeatedly heard the term ‘Cloud,’ about which she had no idea. Her fascination with the Cloud grew while she was looking for jobs. One day, she found a vacancy for the role of Life Science Expert in AWS that required cloud expertise. She was apprehensive about going ahead with the interview as she was more of a scientist with expertise in her field rather than a cloud expert. Despite this, she gave the interview and was accepted for the role. Being a non-computer person in a fast tech company like Amazon, that too as the first job outside graduate school, felt intimidating to her at the beginning until she realized that she would be the focal person for science whenever any related questions popped up. She feels grateful to her colleagues who continue to support and empower her in every way possible and made her feel valued for her expertise. Addressing her initial fears, she says, “If you think you can do it, just do it. You’ll be fine. I have fought my way through lack of confidence, imposter syndrome, and being unheard.”

From being a research scientist with expertise in Mathematics and Chemistry to landing a job in a high-performance computing team at AWS, Nihit believes her most significant success is being able to overcome her fear of doing new things. “I have taken many challenges for new things, and I’ve realized it just feels scary to do it the first time, but it slowly comes to you. You just have to keep going.”

As a firm believer in the fact that the quality of people we know and we surround ourselves with determines our future, Nihit strongly suggests the importance of connecting with people, especially those who have reached where we want to be. Nihit herself is inspired by one of her young managers who started just five years ago, has been promoted thrice and has a baby — a perfect work-life balance to which she credits for having a very supportive husband. “This story has been a powerful way to look at how women can succeed in their professional lives when they are supported and encouraged.”, says Nihit. “If you connect to one person, that person can point out 50 more people like her. When your number of knowing people increases from 0 to 50, you will gradually start to believe in yourself. “Well, they can do it, why can’t I” is what you require. You might feel like an outsider or not being able to contribute your thoughts in the conversation with them, but at the end of the day, you are left with this spark of doing and achieving something big.”

Nihit strongly supports the idea of having a personal life with family while also moving forward with a promising career. If there are certain things you want in your life, then you should be able to communicate it clearly with your family. “Tomorrow, you’re only going to be weak. Your bones would hurt, and you won’t be able to do anything.” She highlights the importance of prioritizing ourselves and our careers. “If you have big dreams but if you say that you’ve not reached the place where you want to be and if you then start having a family out of pressure, you are not going to be your best self with others. Biology is true. However, one might take some time to become the best version of themselves. But once I am in the zone of being fully confident and strong about myself, not being threatened by external factors, only then I can give my best version to my family. So it’s never wrong to prioritize oneself.”

As someone who likes to work for long hours, Nihit, as a child, preferred books over watching television. This very habit has now translated into documenting all her work, journaling, and reflecting on her actions. “Document your work. Write about it. Make writing an everyday habit. Even in day-to-day life, if I have done anything stupid, I write on why I did it, how would I not do it the next time. That is how I keep myself grounded.”

Being a deadline-driven person, she focuses on the outcome, keeping track of her progress, and planning her time and effort accordingly to meet her goals. Apart from her work, she likes to run, cook and clean, or watch sitcoms to freshen herself. On laziness and procrastination, her idea is to be persistent and build up habits. “If I let myself loose and become lazy for one day, I would not want to repeat it. So, having a good schedule helps.”

Nihit is a big believer in the fact “anybody can do it” and in supporting and speaking up for fellow women colleagues. “If someone tries to take over when a woman is speaking in a meeting, I intentionally cut the person politely and give space to the woman to put forth her ideas.”

As everyone is being trapped in the idea of having a perfect day and getting things done, Nihit shares something inspiring, “There are weeks when I get nothing done. I feel I know nothing and cannot move ahead. But that’s not what I let take over me. I always have references of my abilities in the past where I had made it through the tough times. Persistence is always the key.”

“Technology is fast-paced, no matter where you come from, you will probably struggle. But this is a great time to be in technology, so everyone needs to grab whatever comes to their way. If I am here, that means everybody can be here too. I am no different. I too struggled, I had no golden spoon, and I am happy. So if you struggle and work hard a little more, you will also be here, and we can all do it. We just have to look forward.”

Being vocal about positive change, striving for it, and giving back to the community has always been Nihit’s way of life: “We should be the focal point of change and empower others.”

This article is written by Dipti Gyawali, a member of Nepali Women in Computing.